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In Long Island City And 'National Landing,' Amazon Chose Mirror Images No Others Could Match

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The two neighborhoods Amazon chose for its second and third headquarters — Long Island City in Queens, New York, and the freshly named "National Landing" in Arlington, Virginia — are close parallels of each other in the country’s two most powerful metropolitan areas. Their similarities reveal what Amazon valued.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam speaks at the announcement for Amazon's headquarters in Arlington, Nov. 13, 2018.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam speaks at the announcement for Amazon's headquarters in Arlington, Nov. 13, 2018.

Let’s start with the obvious: Crystal City — the neighborhood Amazon is hoping to rebrand — is across the Potomac River, and only a few Metro stops, from Washington, D.C. Long Island City is across the East River from Midtown Manhattan and two subway stops from Grand Central Terminal. 

Crystal City is walkable to Reagan National Airport. Long Island City is a 10-minute drive from LaGuardia National Airport. Crystal City sits on four different train routes, has a bus rapid transit system and Interstate 395, Route 1 and the George Washington Parkway run through it. Long Island City is home to eight subway lines, the Long Island Railroad and a handful of accessible highways that take drivers quickly, depending on traffic, to New York’s northern and eastern suburbs.

New York City has more people, and more tech workers, than any other American city, according to Cushman & Wakefield. While the D.C. region is not second place in population, it is home to more than 300,000 tech workers, second only to the Big Apple.

The two neighborhoods are both predominantly commercial zones, with land owned by major developers or the government and little to no long-standing residential areas. Building in Brooklyn or another area of Northern Virginia could have brought activism from neighboring, property-owning residents. Crystal City and LIC don’t have many of those.

“The choice of metro areas likely reflects strong human, financial, and political capital in the New York and Washington, D.C., metro areas. The selection of neighborhoods within those metros ... shows considerable judgment by Amazon’s real estate team," Brookings Institute Metropolitan Policy Program Fellow Jenny Schuetz wrote. “Within the metros, the two chosen neighborhoods have relatively flexible real estate markets, and some striking parallel features.”

The parallels go beyond the economic development fact sheets. Northern Virginia and New York City were among the tightest-lipped of Amazon’s 20 shortlist suitors, revealing nothing about the economic incentive packages they offered the tech giant, despite the 14-month gestation period since Amazon’s September 2017 announcement of the HQ2 search.

Democrats control the state and local politics in Queens and Arlington. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and four of Arlington's five County Board members are Democrats. The fifth, independent John Vihstadt, lost his bid for re-election to a Democrat on Election Day. While Virginia committed to roughly $1B less in direct incentives for Amazon to put down roots less than a mile from the Pentagon, it is spending $1B to build a tech-focused campus of Virginia Tech 2 miles away.

Democrats had an even better election night in New York, where they swept statewide offices, ousted the last remaining Republican congressmen in city limits and took back control of the state Senate. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio — both Democrats — have publicly sparred over a number of issues, particularly the subway, which has deteriorated after years of underfunding and neglect. They came together Tuesday, victorious and congenial, to announce they would give the company owned by the world's richest man $1.7B in tax incentives to move to the East River waterfront.

The New York City Amazon headquarters announcement featured Empire State Development's Howard Zemsky, Amazon Vice President of Global Real Estate and Facilities John Schoettler, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio
The New York City Amazon headquarters announcement last year featured Empire State Development's Howard Zemsky, Amazon Vice President of Global Real Estate and Facilities John Schoettler, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio.

"I look at it as a good thing because there’s been a tug of war between the mayor and the governor about who’s going to take responsibility for funding the MTA and making the kinds of upgrades and improvements that need to be made there," Akerman LLP Economic Development and Incentives Practice Chair Steven Polivy said. "I’m hoping that with the elections and the turnover of the state Senate that the logjam of getting things done, particularly with mass transit in New York City, will get broken, and this will be a catalyst."

It is still unclear, however, what exactly will be done to accommodate Amazon into the area's infrastructure. The 7 train, which will likely be the most heavily used line to take workers into the neighborhood, is routinely overcrowded to the point where riders sometimes have to wait several trains to even squeeze into a car. 

D.C.'s Metro system is facing similar issues as New York. Its neglected maintenance boiled over in 2015 when a woman died from smoke inhalation on a broken-down train trapped in a tunnel with a smoking piece of the third rail. Passengers have had to suffer through prolonged segments of track shutdowns, and ridership has fallen off as a result.

The next major shutdown is coming next summer, around when the first Amazon employees are expected to be hired, on the Blue and Yellow lines that go through Crystal City. All stops south of Reagan National Airport will be shut down from Memorial Day to Labor Day, eliminating Metro service for Amazon's upcoming campus from the south.

East on the 7 train from Long Island City are the neighborhoods of Sunnyside, Forest Hills, Jackson Heights and Flushing, some of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the country. Those neighborhoods have recently formed an anti-gentrification group, called the 7 Train Coalition, and many activists and politicians in New York City have railed against Cuomo and de Blasio for the incentive deal they gave to Amazon.

Columbia Pike in Arlington, Virginia
Columbia Pike in Arlington, Va.

Virginia differs in its community reaction — there hasn't been organized opposition from residents — but the suburbs west of Crystal City are just as vibrant and diverse as Queens. Columbia Pike, Annandale and Alexandria have some diverse communities with residents who are nervous about being priced out of their homes.

Ultimately, what Long Island City and Crystal City have in common that Amazon valued most is the combination of population and talent. While Denver has a thriving tech scene, Amazon told city officials it simply wasn't large enough.

New York and D.C. each offer metro populations north of 5 million, hundreds of thousands of whom already work in tech. Amazon plans to hire hundreds of workers next year in each city, but in 10 years when the company expects 25,000 workers in Long Island City and 25,000 more in National Landing, chances are many of those are current students in the area's high schools. 

Amazon reportedly asked all of its 20 shortlist cities about details as minute as high school test scores. New York City has 15 of the country's top 200 high schools in U.S. News and World Report's 2018 rankings, and Long Island has six. The best high school in the country, according to TheBestSchools.org, is Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology, 10 miles from National Landing.

“[Amazon] ultimately determined that the single most important thing was the best talent in the world, and where could they get that,” Virginia Economic Development Partnership CEO Stephen Moret told the Washington Post.